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Pakistani TV host fired after she confronts couples in park

Maya Khan was the popular host of a successful Pakistani morning television show until she decided to expose what she considered offensive behaviour - young men and women socialising in a public park in Karachi.

Maya Khan, (right, in red) was host of one of Pakistan´s most popular morning shows until she led a group into a park trying to expose couples hanging out together.
Maya Khan, (right, in red) was host of one of Pakistan´s most popular morning shows until she led a group into a park trying to expose couples hanging out together.

ISLAMABAD // Until recently, Maya Khan was the popular host of a successful Pakistani morning television show, Early Morning with Maya. The show had a mix of benign programming featuring songs and interviews with movie stars and other celebrities.

But last month, Ms Khan decided to expose what she considered offensive behaviour - young men and women socialising in a public park in Karachi, possibly Pakistan's most cosmopolitan yet conservative metropolis.

She led a dozen producers into a major park to interview unmarried men and women hanging out together, something many in this conservative Muslim country say is immoral and a disgrace to the family that may ruin vital marriage eligibility.

The broadcast cost Ms Khan her job.

Many viewers were taken aback to see the television celebrity, who had never publicly revealed hardline Islamist leanings, hunting down young boys and girls in the park.

In the hour-long programme broadcast live on Samaa television on January 17, the station employees were seen pursuing the couples for comment. Some ran away, fearing their faces would be splashed across television screens.

In her questioning, Ms Khan was direct, even abrasive.

"Do your parents know where you are? Answer 'yes' or 'no,'" Ms Khan asked a girl in a black burqa sitting beside a boy.

"No, they don't know," the girl admits.

"Is she your fiancee? Why you are reluctant to face the camera?" she asked a young man as he turned away and the woman alongside him demanded that the camera be shut off. Undeterred, Ms Khan persisted. "Where is your marriage certificate?" she asked to the nodding approval of her assistants.

Not all the couples were cowed by the camera and the questions.

"We are not doing anything wrong. This is our own life. We are not answerable to anyone," one woman said indignantly.

Pakistan is an officially Muslim nation, with the world's second largest Muslim population after Indonesia.

Many consider any kind of relation between a girl and boy outside marriage taboo, although love affairs are common among affluent urban dwellers. But such liaisons between different castes or in the countryside can lead to honour killings.

The programme triggered a spirited debate in social media and newspapers, with many questioning the right of "vigil-aunties" to intrude into the private lives of citizens.

"Young people fall in love all the time. Sometimes they don't - it's just infatuation," one woman wrote in a letter to Ms Khan published in the Express Tribune newspaper.

The woman, who did not give her family name, said young couples in search of private space to spend time together do not require instructions from their elders about the implications of their choices.

"Trust me, they don't need a team of middle-aged women hounding them down in public places to enlighten them about their decisions," she wrote.

The programme also provoked more argument between liberals and conservatives over the direction of the bitterly divided country.

Conservatives accuse liberals of trying to "westernise" the country by promoting its culture and practices.

"There will definitely be chaos and unrest if you try to trample the culture of a society by introducing alien culture," said Hafiz Hussain Ahmed, a leader of the hardline Islamic group, Jamiat-e-ulema-e-Islam.

But liberals said Ms Khan's programme was reminiscent of the Taliban vigilantes who roamed the streets of Kabul and Kandahar enforcing their harsh version of Sharia before they were driven out by a United States-led invasion in 2001.

They fear that such shows in Pakistan, where Islamist extremists are gaining traction, will encourage copycat behaviour by militants across the country.

"Our society is already facing repression because of growing extremism. Maya Khan has added to this repression," said Iqbal Haider, a former law minister and one of the founding members of the private Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

"She was, in a way, trying to promote the Taliban thinking in the society, which is highly irresponsible and an unwarranted act on her part."

But the controversy and the fallout says much. A decade ago, there would have been little support for the couples in the park. They would have been almost universally condemned.

Despite repeated calls from The National, Ms Khan would not comment.

Her only response was a statement she made on the television station.

"I apologise if some family was hurt by our campaign last week. We never meant to hurt anyone," she said.

The station had insisted she give an "unconditional" apology and that statement failed to satisfy the station's management. She was fired, and the show was cancelled.

"There was a lot of resentment among the people about her programme. Her apology was not sufficient, and that's why her services have been terminated," a senior management official of Samaa TV told The National.

Ms Khan's critics welcomed the firing.

"Dear Ms Maya Khan, the next time, YOU are sitting in a park, you will be asked the same question," said a message posted on the website of Express Tribune newspaper.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

* with additional reports from the Associated Press